Thursday, February 02, 2017

The Quality Of Numbers: Tourists

Three weeks ago, the national minister tourism, Álvaro Nadal, announced that the final scores on the doors for 2016 would reveal a 9.9% rise in the total number of tourists who came to Spain. In fact, he slightly undervalued the rise. Rather than the number increasing to 75.3 million, it went up to 75.6 million. Let joy be unconfined.

Nadal said that this was all the fruit of the boost to the tourism sector, which is recognised as the most competitive in the world. The trouble is that the "boost" owed very little to competitiveness but mostly everything to security. Numbers vary as to how many tourists Spain has been "borrowing", but - and you can pretty much pick a number at random - a favoured one bears some similarity to last year's percentage increase.

Competitiveness is one of those concepts like the tedious vogue for sustainability that can mean whatever you really want it to. A ten per cent increase, there's your competitiveness, even if it isn't and even it means ever greater quantity. A further element of competitiveness is price. We are now used to being told that Mallorca's holidays are as if not more expensive than anywhere else's, but of course Mallorca, along with the rest of the islands, topped the 13 million tourist mark for the first time last year. Ever more quantity, and one that was only partially amused by the price.

Yet another element of the competitiveness equation is quality, one being pursued with transformational zeal by hoteliers such as Meliá, whose vice-president, Gabriel Escarrer, has said that the only way to compete with certain destinations is through quality and not through price. Hence, prices will doubtless continue to rise while the quality ante is raised ever higher.

For now, it would seem, a wish to not have to be competitive on price but stress the quality is being fulfilled (assuming one accepts that quality is at least keeping pace with other destinations). But it is a price competitiveness with a fair chunk of Hobson's choice. Moreover, it is current price competitiveness that comes with a sting in the tail. The number of tourists is going up, but their spend is going down.

This was a familiar lament last year, and in their announcement of the annual scores on the doors, the alliance for touristic excellence, Exceltur, said that the average spend per tourist had indeed declined. Furthermore, it was some distance below what Nadal had been talking about three weeks previously, when he had said that the spend had gone up.

The quoting of spend statistics is something which I think - I hope - we all take with a sizable pinch of salt. It is even more sizable given that Nadal's figure was roughly 300 euros higher than Exceltur's. Perhaps there are two sets of statistics, which is news to me, but there you go. Whatever the real (?) figures are, they underpin the apparent discrepancies in what overall competitiveness should entail. Quality is the principal aim, or so it appears, but what about the quantity?

The ever increasing numbers are, as many in the tourism industry believe, not what Mallorca and Spain should be about. Quality should come before quantity. Yet there was the minister, just three weeks ago, praising a ten per cent increase in quantity. As his figure showed an increase in spend, then he would do, but his figure isn't the same as the Exceltur number.

The muddle over numbers reflects the confusion over what the strategy should be: the real strategy, that is. Is it the case that Mallorca and Spain truly want fewer tourists and ones who will be undeterred by price and attracted principally (or perhaps exclusively) by quality? If it is, then it's about time it was stated and expressed unequivocally.

There are parts of the tourism industry who feel like this. Reducing numbers is most definitely not confined to left-wing, environmentalist agitators, and the debate over numbers and the quality-quantity equation has existed for years. Ah, but is it about fewer tourists? Is it not about maintaining the current number (perhaps with those who have been "borrowed") but at a greater level of quality. All 70 million or so of them? Or 13 million or so in the case of the Balearics?

There are certain sectors of the industry which are only interested in numbers increasing. Aena represents one. The more passengers the better, even if a significant proportion fly low-cost, which supposedly means lower quality (which it doesn't in all instances by any means).

The current tourism boom, largely the consequence of "borrowed" tourists, isn't sustainable. If it were, then quantity will beat quality every time. But even without these temporary tourists, is quality about to prevail? It's been spoken about for years. Rather like the statistics, you have to wonder if it's all just waffle.

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